8/28/2009 - Review by: Etiam
On 'Witchcult Today', Electric Wizard continue their resin-fueled crusade for sludge metal illumination. Now six LPs into their career, there are few surprises left up their voluminous sleeves (being wizards), but most would agree that the band's vitality and knack for iconic riffs has remained relatively constant over the years. Even through the ascension of new imitators, who might be slower, lower, or simply more balls-trippingly tweaked, Electric Wizard has arguably remained the touchstone of all stoner metal. In most cases, 'stoner metal' is a lacking term that typically describes music by virtue of those who listen to it, rather than the music itself. In the case of Electric Wizard--who use drug iconography intertwining in their logo and lyrical plays such as as 'Drugula', wherein vampires are reduced to blood-addicted junkies in quest of their next intoxicating encounter--the term is entirely merited.
Unlike some of their peers, the Wiz' has never become overwhelmed by their drug affiliation, and are cogent enough songwriters to use a sinister vibe and infectious grooves to appeal to a larger audience. Both of these qualities are present on 'Witchcult Today' in plenty, but enough changes have been made to separate this album from its predecessors. The most obvious difference is Jus Osborn's singing, which, while heavy with echo, is quite stripped compared to the processed overdrive heard on some past records. He relies on a few basic melodies throughout the album and takes a more active verse/chorus tact than on the heavily instrumental trips from the band's early days. This newer approach, when combined with his naturally thin, keening timbre, gives 'Witchcult Today' a decidedly old-school vibe that is more rock than doom. Some fans might in fact be put off by Jus's voice, which recalls the likes of Pagan Altar and Witchcraft, if not quite Manilla Road. In some instances, he contributes positively to the album's atmosphere, but during the chorus of 'Torquemada '71', which could have been a spooky ritual of Inquisitor Generals and the Countess Bathory, it instead just sounds like grousing.
Also, the production itself is thinner than on some past records, in part due to a diminished bass presence. Since 2004, the Wiz's rhythm section has been shuffled, bringing on two relative unknowns in Tas and Shaun Rutter to handle bass and percussive duties, respectively; while both newcomers perform well, neither can (nor should they) steal the spotlight from the massive riffing that has made Electric Wizard a name renowned in head shops the world over. And in this department, Liz Buckingham and Jus still have plenty to say. The compelling monster mash shuffle of 'Dunwich' stands out, as does the wailing chorus of the closer, 'Saturnine', and every other full song has at least one happening hook to offer. The use of organ is also quite effective, especially when paired against the guitars' fuzzed-out wails. On the other hand, the haunting stagger of 'Black Magic Rituals...', an 11-minute instrumental and spoken word interlude, is rife with heavy-handed Gothic ambiance and a lurking ritualism that begs for a Vincent Price voiceover. That, at least, would help excuse its useless second half, which is the album's lowest point.
At other moments, 'Witchcult Today' simply strays too far into old formulas. Most songs open with a single guitar eking out a main theme, followed by the full band's restatement, and finally the verse, which is still delivered over the same riff. This approach has carried the band throughout its many years and is decidedly effective, but is nonetheless starting to run out of ideas. Especially for a band so reliant on a few core riffs as Electric Wizard, its concerning to have two songs on the same album (the title track and 'Torquemada '71') feature riffs that are practically mirror images of one another.
Solos also remain one of the band's weaker points: they can noodle around a pentatonic scale convincingly, but no solo on this album contributes to its song in any critical manner. Indeed, though Electric Wizard laid the template for such newcomers as (20 Buck Spin artist) Samothrace, that new sludge generation could teach these old hands a thing or two about good leads. To their credit, no full song on 'Witchcult Today' is superfluous--the instrumentals notwithstanding--and, despite a repetitive formula, the writing is strong enough to carry each song along with deceptive alacrity. If the instrumentals were dropped, this would have been a spry album full of good numbers, front to back. As it is, 'Witchcult Today' will satisfy the fans, but cannot approach the band's best efforts.
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